BOSTON -- We've heard for nearly four months about an inherent lack of trust between NFL owners and players, with the parties embroiled in a lockout that on Thursday reached its 100th day.
And after all this time, the real fix might be taking trust largely out of the equation.
There's plenty of ground left to cover, of course, with the league and players in their fourth week of hush-hush negotiations, but plenty of progress is being made. Perhaps the biggest bridge to cross was the divide created by a healthy mistrust, and the splitting of the "all revenue" model could now clear the way.
Then there's this: League sources said Thursday that NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith has earned the owners' trust and respect in a very big way over the last month. In fact, that part of the equation, coinciding with the legal aspects of the dispute slowing and the lawyers taking much smaller roles, has been integral in getting the owners to move off hard-line stances and listen to players' demands.
One NFC team executive said after this week's owners meetings that the league and players are "within striking distance" of a deal. The parties have spent the last month negotiating the revenue split -- by far the biggest issue on the table. On Thursday, the meetings will reach another critical juncture, as the sides go in depth into the rookie system for the first time since starting the "secret" meetings May 31 in Chicago.
"There are enough legitimate issues to where it could all fall down still," one AFC team executive said. "They're dealing with that stuff."
According to another player source, the NFLPA held a conference call for players during the lunchtime hour Thursday to update the reps, much like owners were given an update earlier this week.
The conference call was similar to those in the past, according to participants, with the players given an update on where things stand and a forum to answer questions. As one participant on the call put it: "It was the same ol', same ol' honestly. We are both still talking and just working toward something. Still lots to do."
This is a complicated deal with a lot of hands in it and a lot of different people's interests being served. But the "all revenue" model has, at least, helped turn a minefield into a far less treacherous path.
The "all revenue" model works on a percentage of the whole pie. That means no wondering if the 2012 revenue will be what the league projects it to be and guarantees the players a fixed percentage of total revenue. As the NFC team executive put it, "I don't know too many people that have total trust in their boss." So is the problem fixed? No. But it does, at least, manage the trust issue.
"In terms of the revenue model, it will absolutely help build back some trust," one well-connected player said. "It certainly doesn't solve it, though. There's still a lot of distrust from a lot of players. Not saying this can't be healed, but it will just take some time. Ultimately, getting this lockout ended will heal a lot of wounds."
One thing that has helped, by all indications, is having the owners and players meet in the clandestine settings that they have over the last four weeks -- first in suburban Chicago, then Long Island, N.Y., then Maryland's Eastern Shore and, finally, over the last couple days on the South Shore near Boston. Still, the players are wary based on the language the owners had written into television contracts, some individuals' actions over the last sixth months and what they've characterized as an overall lockout strategy.
There still would be some projections involved in the "all revenue" model, but there'd be more certainty that the players' take was reflective of the league's success. It might not make the relationship between players and owners a full-blown "partnership," but it would go a lot further in getting there.
"This is a way to repair the trust, or improve it to the best point possible," said the NFC team executive, who was involved in Monday's meeting. "It's a much simpler formula. It's one you don't need a lot of accounting for, and it's a pretty simple way to say, 'O.K., you get 'X' of that', and you build in fail safes. That way, no matter how the league performs, good or bad, the two are joined at the hip. Everyone benefits from the rising tide. Everyone has incentives to raise revenue."
The NFC team exec added: "It puts you in a position where interests are aligned. In any business, you want your rank and file to have the same end goals you do and have the same vision for the future you do." Said the AFC team exec: "It certainly simplifies things and makes it black and white."
And there is a place where the owners and players can find a common ground.
"The simpler the formula, the less trust is needed," a second player source said. "Trust becomes an issue when an expense is subjectively categorized one way or another by either party. The more the formula focuses strictly on revenue, the easier it is to come up with a number."
Again, things aren't necessarily at the goal line yet, and Thursday will be a critical day in talks. But the momentum built thus far is palatable, and both parties are motivated to capitalize on it.
NFL Network insider Jason La Canfora contributed to this report.